Escape from Berlin: When Freedom Mattered More Than Life Itself

In an age when our emails and websites are monitored; when companies can tell where we shop, what we buy and how much we spend; when CCTV and mobile phones can track our every movement; when the law tells us where a cigarette can be smoked, the very notion that we live in a free society can sometimes seem incredulous.

Today, freedom is an endangered concept. It is threatened in subtle ways … ways that were never even conceived just a few years ago. However, there is no doubt that when we look back on history it is clear to see those times when the removal of freedom was a lot less sophisticated … times when physical barriers were the means to control people’s movements.

Those blatant attempts to restrict society’s liberty were fought against valiantly, whether it be the segregationist policies of America’s southern states in the Sixties or the equally overt confinement of people by Communist East Germany in the same period and beyond … these were moments when people had the courage to say ‘no’ and to risk their lives for a future free of oppression.

Those who fought to secure freedom through racial equality have been recognised, but those others who lived in the dark confines of oppressive East Germany and who risked all to break free deserve a little more time in the sun and should be celebrated by us all for their brave actions.

DIVIDED CITY: The Berlin Wall being erected

DIVIDED CITY: The Berlin Wall being erected

It is 24 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall – a structure dividing East and West Berlin which became a symbol of Communist coercion.

Many, though, risked their lives to break free. Over the 26 years that the Wall stood, hundreds of people escaped, not allowing such things as minefields, attack dogs, concrete, barbed wire and gun-toting soldiers to impede their flight to freedom.

The means of escape were often ingenious. Some, like Horst Breistoffer, became expert at it. He bought a tiny car, which he modified to allow a person hide curled up in the space once occupied by the battery and heating system. Breistoffer managed to smuggle nine people into the West before he was caught.

Tunneling beneath the Wall was another popular means of escape … so popular, in fact, that it was not uncommon for tunneling gangs to charge huge sums to sneak people out of the East.

There were others, too, who forsook profit and organised tunneling operations out of a sense of idealism, to spirit people from under the noses of their Communist oppressors.

The Becker family fell into that category. Clara Becker was a widow who raised six children. Her house stood directly on the border separating East and West Berlin. With six young adults living there, Clara’s home became something of a magnet for other young people in the neighbourhood.

As they watched the Wall being erected they knew that if they were ever going to flee then this would be the time. The Beckers and some of their friends decided to tunnel out.  Using hammers, shovels and pickaxes, it took the diggers three days just to penetrate the basement wall.

Battling cave-ins and knowing they would face death if captured, they kept digging, until, finally, 28 of them managed to crawl to freedom into West Berlin on January 24, 1962.

Others took similar risks. In 1964, Wolfgang Fuchs spent seven months leading a gang in the construction of a 140-yard tunnel, which stretched from an East German bathroom to a basement in the West. Over 100 people used it to escape.

Another successful tunnel was started in an East Berlin graveyard. The idea was simple but effective: ‘Mourners’ went to a grave and then disappeared underground. The plan worked perfectly until East German guards discovered a pram left by the ‘grave’ and promptly sealed the tunnel.

GREAT ESCAPE: The  Strelzyk and Wetzel families. Peter Strelzyk is pictured right

GREAT ESCAPE: The Strelzyk and Wetzel families. Peter Strelzyk is pictured right

But perhaps the most daring escape involved the families of Peter Strelzyk and Guenter Wetzel who, for months, collaborated in their basements to build a hot-air balloon.

Their wives stitched together curtains, bed sheets, and scraps of fabric to make a 65x75ft canopy. A flamethrower and gas burner were then used to pump hot air into this makeshift balloon. Incredibly, the plan worked and on the night of September 15, 1979, the families floated to freedom with just enough fuel to take them over the Wall.

These remarkable and ingenious acts of bravery should never be forgotten. They celebrate the human spirit’s will to survive and our innate desire for independence … a desire that has written our history for millennia.

Free will is such a fragile concept. It should be nurtured and guarded jealously. Instead, we watch it being eroded on a daily basis. Perhaps we should all follow the example of those brave souls from the Sixties and say ‘no’ just a little more often and a little more loudly.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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25 Responses to Escape from Berlin: When Freedom Mattered More Than Life Itself

  1. After reading The Spy Who Came In From The Cold years ago, I became fascinated with the notion of escapes from East Berlin ! Great post THANKS !


  2. Louis says:

    David, I’m having trouble reconciling this post with the last one about Tirpitz the pig mascot. They both have to do with German history and that’s about it. I also find anything dealing with the Berlin Wall and attempts to escape it fascinating and enjoyed this post a lot.


    • I don’t really have themes as such, Louis. If there is an interesting story then I’ll write about it – and if that story focuses on the less commonly recorded aspects of war and history then even better. Hope that makes some sort of sense – David


  3. Pingback: Escape from Berlin: When Freedom Mattered More Than Life Itself | John L. Monk

  4. Tom and Christine Kavanagh says:

    Thank you David I am so enjoying this series historywithatwist, Robert shared them with me, and now I print them out and find them great bedtime reading. Keep up the good work and many thanks.



    • Hi Christine, That is great to know. I’m glad you like them. Do you have a Kindle? If so, I’ll send you on my books for a bedtime read. I hope all is well – David


      • Robbie says:

        Dave, loved this post. BTW Christine like me couldn’t put her kindle down until your books were thoroughly read. Can’t wait to read what’s next in store for Liam!!


      • Hey Rob, ow are things? That’s a great – I never knew Christine read the books, too. I’m one-third of the way through Liam’s next adventure. Glad you liked the post. Keep well!


  5. rhchatlien says:

    It’s hard to believe it’s been 24 years. Soon, the amount of time since the fall will be longer than the amount of time the wall stood. In a more light-hearted take on the subject, do you know Billy Wilder’s movie One Two Three? It’s a very funny satirical comedy about eastern and western cultural differences set Berlin shortly before the wall was erected, and it always surprises me that he could get away with making it at that time.


  6. I haven’t seen that one, Ruth but I have seen Goodbye Lenin, which is very funny and deals with the same subject. My wife is East German and she found it very true to life. Of course, there is also The Lives of Others, which is much darker but a brilliant film.


    • rhchatlien says:

      We love The Lives of Others, but it is heartbreaking. We watch it every couple of years. I haven’t seen Goodbye Lenin. I’ll have to look for it. Check out One Two Three. It has an over the top performance by Jimmy Cagney. The satire cuts both ways, skewering both East and West.


  7. I loved the historical perspective, but found the comparison to today to be unsettling. As part of the generation that marched for civil rights and against Vietnam, I am amazed at the level of apathy (including my own, at times) at the continuing encroachments on the rights of so many of our citizens — including by a Republican minority that thinks their principles are somehow more important than democratically-determined rules. But then, I guess that’s what I did when I was marching for civil rights and against Vietnam.


  8. Thank you for this fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who were anything but apathetic. And you’re right – we do need to be reminded.


  9. P. C. Zick says:

    I enjoyed reading this post, David. Sometimes when I complain about something stupid, I catch myself and realize how very fortunate I am to be living where I am, flaws and all. It’s always good to remember those who went before and the struggles they suffered. We also must guard our precious rights zealously. Thank you for the reminder.


  10. Thanks Patricia. You’re right, sometimes we forget the good fortune we enjoy and allow the pessimism to take hold far too often


  11. Perspective is such a funny thing. I notice from my comment above that the first time I read this, I loved the post and all I could think of was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I still absolutely love the post and the idea of the escapes but in the first lines… “when the law tells us where a cigarette can be smoked, the very notion that we live in a free society can sometimes seem incredulous.” I just spent the last couple of weeks visiting a dear friend every day in the hospital with horrible bronchial problems, the doctors asked her how much she smoked and for how many years (I was a smoker and if I drink enough do have a cigarette or two these days, like once a year) , to which she answered. “Never, but my parents were very heavy smokers and I was always around the smoke as a child in closed environments” . Freedom of the cigarette companies to blatantly lie to us about the dangers of their product is just the tip of so much that has toppled in the last few decades, so inasmuch as certain “privacies” are lost, it is a tool that can also be put to good use, my philosophy is to make every conversation interesting as I have no idea who is listening!


    • Well, you’re right about cigarette companies, no doubt about it. Their freedom to spin and to lie has been taken away – only to be replaced by others doing exactly the same thing, I suspect. Freedom of speech is another thing worth looking at – it sounds like a great idea but when you have people like the Islamic State abusing it then you start to wonder… and that’s when ALL freedom becomes at risk as governments strife to curb extremists. Too often, in the rush to protect freedom, governemnts end up removing it entirely. It’s a cautious path that they must negotiate.


  12. Chris says:

    This should read “incredible”, not “incredulous”.


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